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STARK REALITY: A Syrian refugee with his children in a three-room makeshift refugee accommodation in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.
Danny Lawson/PA/AP
STARK REALITY: A Syrian refugee with his children in a three-room makeshift refugee accommodation in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.

Outside the camps

Middle East | Syrians fleeing war in their own country find strife in surrounding nations, too

Issue: "Probing international adoption," Nov. 16, 2013

To grasp the scale of Syria’s refugee crisis, consider mornings at the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan: Young boys climb barbed-wire fences to gain better spots in distribution lines, as UN World Food Program workers hand out a half million pieces of pita bread.

More than 120,000 refugees live in the camp, making it the second largest refugee camp in the world. The influx of war victims has swelled the area to the fourth largest population center in Jordan. The UN reports that running the camp costs nearly $1 million a day.

Now consider this: Most Syrian refugees don’t live in refugee camps. The masses in the Zaatari camp represent a small fraction of more than 2 million Syrians who have fled their war-torn country in the last two years. That’s nearly 10 percent of Syria’s population.

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War has displaced another 7 million Syrians who remain in the country. (At least 100,000 people have died in the conflict.) Aid workers expect that a significant portion of the displaced Syrian citizens may flee the country as well.

It’s a massive calamity that the UN calls the world’s worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

It’s also compounded by a stark reality: Refugees are flooding into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq—nations with economic problems and sectarian tensions of their own that make hosting refugees a momentous challenge.

Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, president of the Catholic relief agency Caritas, told the Migration Policy Centre: “The refugees are Christians and Muslims. They are exhausted and desperate. … If the exodus has to continue, the situation could rapidly spin out of control.”

For now, the challenge of helping refugees falls to a range of groups like the UN and national governments. But it also falls to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) partnering with local groups, including churches closely connected to communities in need.

With winter approaching, and Syria’s war continuing, the refugee crisis shows no sign of slowing. For churches and other local groups, helping Syrians may mean learning how to offer a home to refugees who may never return to their own.

The largest numbers of Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring Lebanon. By mid-October, the UN reported nearly 800,000 refugees living in the country, while Lebanese officials estimated the number had passed 1 million. In a small nation of 4 million people, Syrian refugees now comprise nearly 20 percent of Lebanon’s population.

Despite the huge influx, Lebanese officials have resisted forming refugee camps. The country already hosts nearly 400,000 Palestinian refugees who have lived in sprawling camps for decades. Officials—and Lebanese citizens—worry forming Syrian camps could repeat that dynamic.

The UN provides food vouchers, hygiene kits, household items, and some healthcare services to thousands of registered refugees. But substantial needs remain. The Migration Policy Centre reported: “Most refugees live in precarious conditions, with few or no financial resources to meet their needs. The main challenges are those of access to accommodation, food, water, sanitation, health care and security.”

When it comes to accommodations, many refugees scrounge for shelter where they can find it. Though some have enough savings to pay rent in decent apartments in larger cities, that’s created another problem: Rents are soaring, and Lebanese citizens resent the price hikes.

Some also resent refugees overwhelming already burdened public services, and they worry about competition for jobs. Indeed, the Syrian collapse has created an economic downturn: Syria was a large market for Lebanese goods before the war, and the country’s demise has stung the Lebanese economy.

Meanwhile, the country struggles with sectarian tensions. From their stronghold in Beirut, the group Hezbollah supports the Syrian regime. That creates tensions and fear for refugees perceived as unaligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Many Syrian refugees live in less urban areas, and some pay exorbitant prices for ramshackle rooms without amenities like heating or plumbing. It’s a problem repeated in other countries across the region as well.

A worker in the Middle East with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention—who asked not to be identified for security purposes—recently visited Syrian families who had fled to a neighboring country.

“One location we visited had two stories but no doors and no windows in the 12-by-12 structure,” he wrote in an email. “It had previously been used by animals and was in a very low-lying area, susceptible to flooding and disease. There were at least four families living there—I counted around 16-20 people, children in the midst.”

Some NGOs are searching for creative ways to meet housing needs. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) renovates rundown apartments for refugees to live in. The arrangement: NRC makes improvements—like fixing or installing plumbing, patching holes, and rewiring electricity—if landlords allow refugees to stay in the renovated apartments rent-free for one year.

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